As if we didn’t need another reason not to buy Chinese products, this may sway you. I am sure you may have heard the term “slave labor” when referring to foreign workers who are employed in cramped, unvented work spaces, living in overcrowded dormitories and paid a minimal rate. But these people are not truly slaves as they are “free” to work on their own and get paid. But there is an underground prison system which is rarely discussed and it is a source of manufacturing products that come directly from these Chinese prisons called Laogai. In these loagai, prisoners are forced to work and get no pay for their work. Now these are truly slave laborers.
So What is the Laogai?
Laogai is the Chinese word for “reform through work” – which is a Work Prison, started in 1953, by Mao Zedong (in my day, he was called Mao Tse Tung, or Chairman Mao), modeled after Joseph Stalin’s Gulags. The Gulags had been around in Russia since the 1920s and existed up until the last one closed in 1986. They were known for their harshness, cruelty and brutality. People sometimes were literally worked to death. The Gulags may have been closed but the Chinese equivalent, the Laogai are still present and flourishing. There is an estimated 1007 Laogai camps with possibly around 5 million captives. 50 million people have passed through the system in the 60 years. Terrible conditions are the expected as far as housing, clothing, food and sanitation. Torture is not forbidden. And work is very hard and dangerous. Examples of dangerous work are handling battery acid without gloves, mining asbestos without protective gear and tanning hides by stirring chemicals while sitting naked in those vats.
Who are the Captives?
The occupants of the Laogai come from many different places. Some are the run-of-the-mill criminals. But the aspect that troubles Americans most are the many “political” prisoners, people who are locked up for simply speaking out either in public or on TV, or the newspaper or on the internet, reporters are not excluded. These “enemies of the state” are locked up with no trial. Christians, just because they are practicing Christianity, have been locked up as well. There is a gripping story of a Chinese woman who was jailed for practicing her Christian religion and sentenced for 3 years without a court trial. Within the Laogai, she was forced to make Christmas lights (Christmas lights are not traditionally used in China, obviously, they were made for export). After her escape to America, much to her horror, the lights she had been making in the laogai were exported to the U.S., were purchased and were going to be strung up in her own church (in the U.S.) when she found out. (For more information on that story see: “Slavery in the 21st Century” video, the link is, also, referenced at the bottom of this blog entry – Please note the Chinese government had deleted all internet access to this video which was part of the whole series done by Al-Jazeera TV).
So Why Do I Bring Up the Laogai?
First, it is unconscionable that this system still exists in the 21st Century within a country in which we do business with to the tune of $250 Billion of exports per year (a clear human rights violation). Second, the Laogai (prisons) make products such as apparel, food, beverages, electronics, etc., which they sell to the United States. It is hard to compete with companies that pay $0 in labor. And how much business do these prisons do? According to Dun & Bradstreet, the prisons did a business of $842.7 million in 1999 based on 10 prisons (which is less than 1/10th of the Chinese camps in existence). It has been difficult to get accurate financials from the Prison systems since. Although the sale of Laogai products out of the country is “illegal”, it is poorly enforced and many products do make it to the United States, the products are not checked by the Chinese (of course, they still put lead in some children’s toys) nor are they checked by the United States. And these slave made products do not need to be labeled if they were made in prison.
So, how do these products make it to the United States? First, many Americans who do business with China often have never seen the factory nor stepped foot into the facilities from where they order their products from. They just have no idea. They could easily purchase something from Shanghai Printing, Stationery Factory which is just another name for Shanghai Municipal Prison. This renaming or having several names is allowed under Chinese law. Or they could order from Guangdong Xiangda Enterprise Company which is also known as Guangdong Huaji Prison which makes machinery, microwaves and engine parts made by 4,000 unpaid workers. Sometimes the prisons will send their products to a “front” company who then sells them to the United States. Just how much of the state sponsored slave labor-made products make it to the United States is unknown. The Chinese government isn’t know to be open about such things, nor does it care what we think. “Building on the Backs of Prisoners” documents some of the American companies known to have purchased loagai products and clothing.
China continues to make state sponsored slave labor-made products for sale to the United States. The United States does nothing about because it owes so much money to China and feels that it is the job of the Central Chinese government to enforce this. China has such a laissez faire attitude when it comes to conducting business that it makes some very conservatives business people in the U.S. salivate – those who would like to bring the U.S. back to the 1800’s. China has no plans to do anything about this situation, and refuse to acknowledge that the problem even exists.
What can we do? It is impossible to know which Chinese products are made in Laogai and which ones are not. One approach is not to buy a single Chinese product until the Chinese government corrects this problem, and, therefore, show the Chinese government that you are exercising your ethical choice purchasing power. Seems kind of extreme, but not impossible. Pressuring American politicians is another way. As far as the United States as a whole, I believe it is in the best interest of America’s economy and ultimately, its self-sufficiency that we increase our own manufacturing in order not to be the kicking post of the Chinese government forever. The U.S. population and its politicians forget that China needs our money more than we need their exports. We should be negotiating from a point of strength and not weakness. So why aren’t we? Because the politicians continually cave to the businesses and big-monied corporations that have millions and billions of money tied up in China. There needs to be an end to laogai. To be safe, buy American, do not support China government supported slave labor.
1. Slavery – a 21st Century Evil This is an excellent 25 minute video about Laogai, its state sponsored making of products by prisoners, many unjustly incarcerated political prisoners. The evidence is quite convincing. S.G. Footwear, 20th Century Fox, the U.S. Govt. and the Chinese Govt. do not come out looking very good. This video will permanently make you look at Chinese products differently. It is too bad I couldn’t save this video on to this website before the Chinese government deleted it.
2. Laogai Research Foundation – Website, contains brief biographies of people that had been incarcerated in Laogais. Human rights news.
3. And Magazine – Article “Laogai in China; The Gulag is Alive and Well.” Brief article on the story of Gulag and Laogai, their conditions, its prisoners, its abuses.
4. Harry Wu – Laogai Museum This is a 4 minute video about Harry Wu, who spent 19 years is a Laogai and is now one of the nation’s leading critic against Laogai. He is truly one brave man.
5. Laogai Research Foundation: Building on the Backs of Prisoners. 15 page PDF file on Laogai abuses.